To be honest, pensions for current generations of active duty military service members are not what they once were. Still, the military is one of the few careers that offer a defined benefits plan. Additionally, the recent reduction in military retirement pay schemes is somewhat offset by allowing service members to participate in the Thrift Savings Plan. All in all, military retirement remains one of the best games in town; especially since many of the benefits plans offered by large companies are subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous economic fortunes and are on the same "endangered list" as Starbuck's $5 Caramel Macchiato.
Obviously, you can make much more money in the private sector than you can in government service. The payoff in salary, bonuses, stock options, and golden parachutes is spectacular for those who can reach high enough, and often climb over enough people, to grab the brass rings in major companies, law firms, and entrepreneurship. Still, the percentage of people who actually reach the top is not unlike the percentage of college baseball players who make it to Major League Baseball. While pursuing those huge payoffs, many often experience severe financial setbacks in the forms of long periods of unemployment and economic downturns. Although service members, like most of us, are very susceptible to believing the grass is always greener, there are plenty of brown patches lurking for those who jump over the fence in search of better pastures.
For those of us who decide to retire in our 40s, military retirement also provides a comforting safety net as we take the risks and make the investments in education and retraining necessary to pursue a second meaningful career or even start a business. While military retirement pay might not keep our families in the lifestyle to which they are accustomed—and perhaps even deserve—it can help tide us over by keeping bills paid and mortgages serviced. Perhaps more important, the safety net of retirement pay can help many military retirees, most of whom are rather risk averse, overcome psychological barriers to opening up a new and bold chapter in their work life.
In his inaugural speech, John F. Kennedy exhorted Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for you country." Those sentiments and philosophy still need to resonate strongly in anyone who would choose to make military service a career. However, our career choices also need to take into consideration how to provide for ourselves and our families throughout our lifetimes. When making a "stay or leave" decision as a service member, do not underestimate the physic and financial benefits from a lifetime stream of inflation-adjusted benefits that can be part of the just rewards of honorable military service.